Ah, the friendly tourist information center — often the first place travelers visit when trying to acquaint themselves with an unfamiliar city.
By offering free maps, lists of reasonably priced accommodations, help with making reservations, and just a place to take a break and rest tired feet, such centers are a godsend for tourists.
But the recent decision by two separate organizations in Tokyo to close an information center and a hotel reservation counter are a sharp reminder that such conveniences — which usually do not turn a profit — often hinge on the generosity of a handful of organizations facing budget constraints of their own.
The lack of money also puts a damper on the government-backed Visit Japan Campaign, under which Japan hopes to boost the number of visitors to the country to 10 million by 2010.
The campaign, together with the successful Aichi World Expo, helped push the number of foreign visitors to Japan 9.7 percent higher in 2005 to a record 6,730,000, according to the Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry.
But just as Japan began to enjoy its status as a tourist magnet, The Tokyo Convention & Visitors Bureau, an affiliate of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government that promotes tourism in the capital, closed its TCVB Tourist Information Center in the Marunouchi district last month.
Touted as one of the most convenient places in the city for tourists to get information thanks to its proximity to the Imperial Palace and Tokyo Station, the center had an average of 150 visitors daily. The 95-sq.-meter facility offered free maps, leaflets, assistance from two staffers, free Internet access — and souvenirs to boot.
“The center opened in May 2004 not only to serve as an ordinary tourist information center but also to be a place where tourists can relax,” said Katsuhiro Fujii, a spokesman for TCVB.
TCVB’s office was housed in the same building as the center, but with the expiration of its lease, the organization had to move its office to Bunkyo Ward.
The new location was not a good one for a tourist information center, given its distance from the city center, Fujii said.
TCVB tried to find another location near the old center in hopes of keeping its doors open, but was unable to find space for rent within its budget.
TCVB was able to open the center in Marunouchi initially thanks to a huge discount it received on rent from the Tokyo Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the owner of the building. The Marunouchi district has Japan’s highest land prices.
Fujii believes tourist information centers face a difficult paradox. “Information centers . . . cannot make money from the services they provide,” but often need to be situated in areas where rent is extremely expensive, he said.
TCVB hopes that its three other facilities — in Shinjuku, Ueno and Haneda airport — and information centers run by other organizations will fill the gap left by the Marunouchi center’s closure. It also has plans to improve its Web site.
In another move that seems to run counter to the tourism promotion effort, the Welcome Inn Reservation Center in Tokyo’s Chiyoda Ward, operated by International Tourism Center of Japan, a transport ministry affiliate, will terminate its services on March 31.
The center lists some 310 reasonably priced hotels and inns nationwide, and provides help finding accommodations for travelers who find it hard to make reservations by themselves due to language difficulties. The reservation counter served some 9,000 travelers in fiscal 2004.
“We don’t take any commissions from travelers and only charge an annual (21,000 yen) fee to our member hotels,” ITCJ’s Isokazu Tanaka said, adding that his organization relied on grants of some 36 million yen annually from associations like the Nippon Foundation, a body that provides financial support to nonprofit organizations using funds raised from motorboat races run by municipal governments.
But with the foundations cutting off all financial assistance, Tanaka said ITCJ has no choice but to discontinue the service.
“The nature of our service simply does not allow us to make ends meet . . . but we hope to resume operation someday,” Tanaka said, pledging to map out a new business model, including collecting more money from member hotels to keep the service going.
Until then, travelers can still use ITCJ’s four other counters, one at each of Narita International Airport’s two terminals, one at Kansai International Airport and one next to Kyoto Station. They can also book via ITCJ’s online service, which automatically translates information entered in English into Japanese to make it easier for reservation clerks.
Still many foreign tourists are saddened to learn the counter is closing.
“It’s a nice service for travelers like me who don’t speak Japanese well,” said Molly Corbett from Boston who was on a 10-day trip to Japan with her mother.
The two booked a hotel for a short trip to Hakone, Kanagawa Prefecture, at the counter. The counter’s impending closure will be “inconvenient for foreign travelers,” she said.